The Road Not Taken, Not Taken: ‘Another Earth’

[19 August 2011]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

We’ve all dreamed about it - a way out of our current situation, a parallel place where all of our problems are pleasures and our trials treats to be savored and enjoyed. In times of crisis or tragedy, when the darkness dims our reserve of hope, we look to the Heavens and pray for a replacement, for the ability to trade with our better, brighter ‘other’. Now, what if that was literally possible? What if there was another planet, just like ours, within space travel distance, offering the exact same set up as here…except with one express difference: the possibility that, there, none of your sorrow or suffering exists. Whatever troubles you have here might not exist there. How would you feel, and more importantly, what would you do upon confronting your happy/horrified twin?

That’s the premise suggested by Another Earth, a 2011 Sundance favorite finally finding a limited release. In Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s script are a myriad of speculative possibilities interlocked with a drama that has something significant to say about grief, redemption, and forgiveness. Problem is, this lo-fi indie effort doesn’t have the budget to realize its loftier goals, so it has to resort to a character study to keep us engaged. As the massive second world looms over the backdrop, its wealth of opportunities untouched, we are stuck suffering through a weird, wonky narrative that sometimes succeeds, often fails, and in the end, frustrates as much as it fulfills its potential and pledge.

Rhoda (Marling) has just found out that she has been accepted to MIT. During a night of casual drinking, she gets behind the wheel of her car and ends up crashing head on into a vehicle being driven by Yale Music Professor and famous composer John Burroughs (William Mapother). The accident kills the man’s wife, young son, and unborn daughter. Devastated, he falls into a deep depression while Rhoda spends four years in prison.

Upon release, she feels the need to look up Burroughs and discover what’s become of him. Under the guise of free maid service, she slowly integrates herself into his life. Luckily, he has no memory of who she is or what she did. In the meantime, scientists announce the discovery of another Earth, a planet just like ours where the people and places are all the same. Rhoda applies for a chance to travel to this new world, hoping that a recent theory about an alternative fate can help her reclaim her sense of self - and her soul.

Like that familiar shot of a lovely blue body floating weightless and welcoming in the darkness of space, Another Earth is all promise and limited actual payoff. Cahill, sitting behind the lens for the first time in his career, can’t help but play practical P.T. Barnum here. The come-on consists of the title idea, meshed with the notion that a life-changing act can, somehow, be erased by the exploration of same. Indeed, when it thinks outside the basic box and contemplates thoughts more metaphysical, the movie enthralls - at least, intellectually. Of course, audiences don’t come to the Cineplex to be engaged in a philosophical dissertation on the complexities of alternate realities, so the storyline shifts wildly between the esoteric and the obvious. Just when we think the movie is smarter than it seems, it stumbles back and does things so dumb we can barely believe it.

Take the burgeoning relationship between Rhoda and Burroughs. She is a smart girl (MIT and all), yet seems light years away from someone this man would gravitate toward - tragedy or no tragedy. In their dollhouse daily routine, the cleaning of plates and the organization of residential chaos, we are supposed to sense a growing connection. She’s obviously there to assuage her massive guilt, but there is a selfish sense to her approach that’s off-putting. Why become emotionally - and later, physically - involved with someone who has the potential to destroy you should they find out who you really are? Another Earth hints that Rhoda may be doing this as a way of settling her debt in a more deadly, death wish manner, but if she’s situationally suicidal, all the love land looks don’t add up.

Similarly, why would she want to travel to the other Earth? We learn early on that things are probably exactly the same there as they are here - exactly. No chance that there’s an existence where Rhoda didn’t drive her car over another family’s dreams. Yes, very late in the plot, once Cahill and his star have painted themselves into a corner, comes the notion that, maybe, just maybe, the other Earth offers an oasis from this one, a place where some kind of cockamamie physics de-synchronization suggests the possibility of events not replicating themselves 100%.  But Rhoda has wanted to escape long before this possibility, and the decision she ends up making can only be viewed as a massive mistake for both parties involved.

In fact, it’s that final act, and the final shot, that will either make or break your appreciation of this sometimes meandering movie. Both can be viewed in ways that either bolster or belittle everything that’s come before. If you really think about it, Burroughs is screwed no matter what scenario plays out. Similarly, Rhonda’s final “confrontation” could mean just about anything - except something good. In the mannered moebius strip of this film, there are probably explanations which give us the happy conclusion the characters want. Unfortunately, Another Earth needed another pass through the word processor before that kind of clarity could be accomplished. Unless you are Stanley Kubrick, your speculation shouldn’t end in a question mark. This is a movie that raises a lot of interesting possibilities. It’s only when they are bypassed for other, unimportant pay-offs that we grow weary of the title topic.

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